It’s mid-afternoon and I am moderating a panel discussion as part of a one-day conference. As I walk into the large, rectangular meeting room, I notice half the room’s filled already with people waiting for our session to start. The panelists arrive and I take my seat with them in front, facing the audience. For the first time, I look at the sea of faces. They are so diverse – mostly people of color, more women than men. I see my Filipino friends in the back of the room. Not able to find any more seats, they prefer to stand together. Symbolic, I thought to myself. I wave and smile at them. The room feels strangely familiar and warm, and as I get up to speak, I feel a gush of affection for the audience. These are my people. I don’t know each one of them individually, but I have this group of people in my heart. I know and love these people.
I start by sharing a bit about myself, “This topic [of diverse leadership] isn’t theoretical or conceptual for me.”
The room falls completely silent. I don’t know what to do, so I keep talking. I continue with what I have prepared to say. I don’t normally get this kind of response. People are listening. Really listening. In five minutes, I’m done with my bit and I move on to the panel discussion. But I’m still feeling bewildered. What just happened?
I have been given a precious and rare opportunity. It’s not one I have been given before – not in this context. Not with stakes this high. None of this is lost on me. I have people praying for this moment. And the Spirit’s presence can be felt in the room. Where the Spirit moves, the place becomes holy.
Reflecting later on the experience, I realize I just witnessed the power of two things: story and belonging. Risking first by sharing my story immediately makes me vulnerable, but with this particular audience, it has also made it safe, for they hold stories as precious, sacred. Their response has given me a sense of belonging – something completely unexpected, and unlike anything I have ever experienced before.
Belonging is not something I am familiar with. In the past, I have written about the sadness of living in a culture of inhospitality. Along with the culture, the church and in-group patriarchy has also indirectly communicated which gender belongs in leadership, which gender is worthy of being seen and heard. I thought my lot in life is to accept liminality, as not just an in-between, temporary state, but as a permanent reality.
And yet, I read in the Bible stories like mine – people from the margins who don’t belong. In her book, The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong1, Karen Gonzales writes, “As a Christian, I was also radically transformed as I began to read the Bible from the margins – from the perspectives of outsiders, foreigners, and castoffs, people like Hagar. I had never realized how much the Scriptures tell the stories of people who then became part of the family of God. Welcome and belonging are overarching narratives of the Bible.”
In scripture, we find a God who welcomes all, and stories from the margins belong as part of the Biblical narrative. There’s a chair for the immigrant, and there’s a sacred space for them to tell their story.
The session ends. I thank everyone for joining. The next hour, I am surrounded by affirmation from people I know as well as complete strangers. As I absorb the different emotions of the moment – relief, joy, satisfaction, awe – I also hear a strange, new message. It’s strange because I haven’t heard it before so distinctly. “You belong here.”
The Spirit repeats with emphasis: “You. Belong. Here.”
I belong here. Here in this place I least expect to belong. I belong here, with these people. My story belongs here; and the Master Writer is writing my story here. I let the truth of these words continue to sink in.
Gonzales adds, “Though the world may ignore the afflictions of immigrants, God sees clearly, cares deeply, and acts decisively n Christ. Though they are marginalized in the world, immigrants are significant in the eyes of God. You are the God who sees, Hagar said, and the same God who saw Hagar sees us.”
The God who sees the plight of the Egyptian slave Hagar, and hears her desperate cries in the desert, sees and hears us. In God’s kingdom, our stories are precious, sacred, and belong as part of God’s story.
1Gonzales, K. (2019), The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong, Harrisonburg, Virginia: Herald Press